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Book Review - How a brutal slave jail was transformed into one of the first HBCUs

The Devil's Half Acre

The Untold Story of How One Woman Liberated the South's Most Notorious Slave Jail

by Kristen Green (Seal Press)

Kristen Green is a reporter and the author of the New York Times bestseller, Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County: A Family, a Virginia Town, a Civil Rights Battle (Harper Collins, 2015), which received the Library of Virginia Literary Award for Nonfiction. She lives with her family in Richmond.

Published in April of this year, The Devil's Half Acre: The Untold Story of How One Woman Liberated the South's Most Notorious Slave Jail focuses on Mary Lumpkin, the enslaved wife of Robert Lumpkin, the owner of a slave jail and brutal slave trader. But the book includes the whole history of enslaved people in America and, specifically, in Virginia, starting from the first ship to arrive with indentured black and white servants, continuing through the enslavement of the black servants and their circumstances up to the Civil War, through the

years of Reconstruction and ending in the present day. The book goes into the ban on importing black people from Africa or the Caribbean, and how that actually increased the enslaved population and their value to the owners.

“When they told me my newborn babe was a girl, my heart was heavier than it had ever been. Slavery is terrible for men, but it is far more terrible for women.” - Harriet Jacobs

There are many quotes like the one above in the book, taken directly from enslaved people’s memoirs and interviews conducted after the end of the Civil War. There are 26 pages at the end of The Devil's Half Acre covering Green's extensive research.

The author has written the book with a lot of conjecture about what Mary Lumpkin might have done, thought and felt, but she cannot state any of that for sure, because Green does not know about Mary’s past before she arrives at the jail, and not much is known about her life there. There is some documentation about Mary's life before the Civil War, and more is available after emancipation. The author writes extensively about other jails and auction houses, and their owners and “wives” and children as well.

Mary had five children by the jailer, and Green chronicles many of her descendants and where they all moved, north and west in America. Many of them did not know their own family history. Many of them passed as white and vanished into history. The jail property was inherited by Mary Lumpkin after the Civil War, when the jailer died. Mary allowed the property to be used as a school for the recently emancipated. As years passed, the school evolved into Virginia Union University, one of the first Historically Black Colleges/Universities (HBCUs).

--Marsha White Melkonian

Stay tuned for Marsha's next book review, when she critiques Yellow Wife, by Sadeqa Johnson, a fictional account of the historical events chronicled in The Devil's Half Acre, told from the perspective of Mary Lumpkin.

Marsha would love to talk books with anyone who wants to share what they've read lately. "It's not like we all have to read the same book at the same time," she says. "And maybe just an 'email meeting', since everyone is so busy." Marsha would suggest a Facebook group, but she's aware not everyone is on Facebook. If you have ideas about/interest in a Fauquier NAACP book club, please reach out to us at:

The Lumpkin complex in Richmond was discovered and excavated by archeologists in 2009. For more information about this and other aspects of Mary Lumpkin's story, check out:

The Enslaved Woman Who Liberated a Slave Jail and Transformed It Into an HBCU

Digging Up the Past at a Richmond Jail

She was raped by the owner of a notorious slave jail. Later, she inherited it.


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